HBCU DIGEST: Are Democrats about to fumble the HBCU agenda?

The quickest way to raise the ire of Black people, especially HBCU supporters and alumni, is to talk about the good outcomes for HBCUs produced under the Trump Administration.  It’s a lot like our relationship with figures like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly; we have an easy enough time separating artists from their artistry; but it is particularly challenging to separate triumphs HBCUs earned under the Trump Administration from Donald Trump’s bigoted behaviors and attitudes. 

One of Trump’s greatest achievements was convincing the GOP that HBCU support should exist as a tenet of the party’s domestic agenda. His efforts to use HBCUs as a way to show love to “the Blacks” resulted in significant gains in federal policy on capital loan forgiveness, rulemaking on borrower defense, and historic funding in the initial round of coronavirus relief packaging.

The Trump Administration set the tone for local and national leaders throughout beet red sections of the south to follow their lead. Suddenly, governors in HBCU states couldn’t find HBCUs fast enough to award funding, sustain appropriations to public institutions and broaden scholarship access for students.  

The 45th president set a high bar, and state leaders have been looking to meet it. Lawmakers in Tennessee are looking to reverse decades of wrongdoing towards Tennessee State University in agricultural funding. In Maryland, talks that moved a democratic legislature and a Republican governor to a settlement agreement on a landmark federal lawsuit involving HBCU discrimination began in earnest under the Trump Administration.

READ: Black colleges were denied state funding for decades. Now they’re fighting back.

Everyone expected the ushering in of normalcy under a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration, but things could not be more volatile for the HBCU community.  Normalcy can drive complacency; normalcy can drive mediocre advocacy and mediocre engagement. 

Things were normal before the Trump presidency, including the usual HBCU struggles of underfunded budgets, uneven access to financing for capital projects, and discrimination in state allocations for Black colleges.  We anticipated that the Trump Presidency and Administration would be anything but normal―so we moved with a collective sense of fervor to protect ourselves and institutions, to urge our stakeholders to move policy forward to our benefit. 

It worked, but now it would seem that fervor has receded.  A year removed from historical philanthropic gains for Black colleges, leaders and advocates in the sector and in Congress have a growing concern about the lack of promised funding for HBCUs in budget reconciliation drafts.

The concern is so real, that Congress’ leading HBCU advocate Rep. Alma Adams is publicly and pointedly reminding her peers of the urgent needs of an HBCU sector that helped to bring a historic blue wave through Washington D.C. last November.  But what has changed other than who occupies the White House?  We lauded the accomplishments of HBCU alumni who were elected to Congress or worked to ensure the vote in many states; but those accomplishments will mean nothing if the Biden Administration cannot compel its party members and allies to work for the benefit of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  

From Rep. Adams’ letter:

I am deeply concerned that provisions related to that funding will inadvertently place HBCUs at a disadvantage. Specifically, Sec. 20042 of the reconciliation text creates a grant program for R&D infrastructure funding for Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), in part based off of my legislation. Unfortunately, the problems with this section are twofold: First and foremost, current language would dictate that all types of MSIs will compete for the same pot of funding. This is contrary to President Biden’s own goals for HBCU and MSI funding, which states “to ensure funding is more equitably distributed among HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs, the Biden Administration will require that competitive grant programs make similar universities compete against each other, for example, ensuring that HBCUs only compete against HBCUs.” If this language as written becomes law, it is accurate to say that HBCUs will only successfully compete for pennies on the dollar- as we have seen in the Department of Defense’s HBCU/MI program. As a means of fulfilling the Biden Administration’s promise, I have called for set-asides for MSIs in this section that mirror percentages stipulated in the CARES Act, the 2021 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, and the American Rescue Plan. Historically Black Colleges and Universities would be entitled to a certain percentage of the funds, as would Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Predominately Black Institutions, etc.

Secondly, Sec. 20042 directs the Secretary of Education to give priority to schools who receive less than $10 million annually in federal research dollars. While I appreciate the intention of this provision- to help schools with little research capacity jump start their efforts, it will in fact slow our common goal of seeing the first R1 HBCU by deprioritizing the grant applications of our many R2 HBCUs, who annually receive research funding in the tens of millions.

An HBCU Week has come and gone with little traction on the issues, no hiring of an executive director for the White House Initiative on HBCUs, and the naming of a presidential advisory board chair in Delaware State University President and Biden ally Tony Allen without a formal board.  In measuring the standards and timing of these things between the Trump and Biden administrations, the Biden White House would appear to be right on time with approximately two weeks left to decide its White House Initiative leadership before they are officially later than their predecessors. 

But Biden being “on time” does not inspire confidence, voter loyalty, or genuine goodwill in our community because there is so much at stake. HBCUs are what the Biden-Harris ticket ran on in Black communities. HBCU graduates like Harris, Rep. James Clyburn, and countless others are who helped Biden win.

The money is missing, the advocacy infrastructure is missing, and the goodwill is waning. Where the sector remained silent on the Obama Administration’s missteps on HBCUs and had no patience for Trump on the matter of Oval Office photo opps and delays in naming HBCU liaisons to the administration, advocates are somewhere in the middle on Biden.

Many GOP lawmakers are still seething about Trump’s 2020 defeat and foaming about a potential Capitol Hill reboot in 2022 and 2024. They can move freely about the south without making any strong effort to support HBCUs or to woo independents who consider HBCU advocacy to be a major domestic issue because, as of this moment, it is not a portfolio that Democrats are winning. 

Only the Biden administration can change that.  

There are tight races in states like Florida, North Carolina and Texas where a slim advantage in purple-ish counties will be gained by way of Black and Hispanic votes. Now is the time to court these blocs; not when they’ve been disaffected and not with talking points like “vote for me or risk not being your truest, Blackest self.”

Assumptions tend to slaughter the Democratic party in close elections―assumed voter blocs, assumed consensus, and assumed turnout. If the party assumes that the HBCU sector remains in the honeymoon phase on much-needed support from the White House and beyond, then they should also assume that a resulting voting booth backlash is just a few short years away. 

We already know how HBCUs can win with a Republican president and Congress ― can the blue team move the sector forward, or are we seeing early signs of a turnover looming in 2022?